CCP: My partner told me early on that s/he is uncomfortable with conflict and tries to avoid it at all costs. However, I now find it hard to engage him/her in any discussion that might cause us to feel tension. How do we get anything resolved?
I share with most couples that the things we initially love about our partner become the things that drive us crazy when we experience them in excess. So your partner was laid back and easy-going about most things in the beginning, right? Now that you’ve settled into the relationship and begun to unveil differences that cause tension, you are probably having difficulty engaging your partner in conversations that produce resolutions. Maybe your partner seems disengaged from making decisions that you really want his/her input on. In either case you’re probably frustrated. I’d like to show you how this becomes a catch 22. If your partner is adverse to experiencing or provoking conflict in the relationship they may be unaware of how their behavior has contributed to your frustration. Their primary focus is on how your frustration now comes across as you continue to pursue them for their engagement, input, or solutions. Unfortunately, they may retreat even further when they sense your frustration, which causes you to escalate or retreat. The end result is that very little conflict gets resolved. Depending on how long you two have been participating in this unproductive dance it’s going to take a different level of intervention to make progress.
Many conflict-avoidant clients share with me that something they experienced in their past has contributed to their aversion to arguing or engaging in intense discussions. “My mother and father used to fight all the time when I was growing up and I vowed that I wouldn’t do that in any of my relationships.” Before the discussion can get off the ground an internal switch flips to the “off” position and they walk away or stop talking about the subject matter with their significant other. In this case, healing will revolve around learning how to handle the uncomfortable feelings associated with the difficult discussions to get to the desired outcome. I like to point out that the “blow-up” they were trying to avoid by shutting down or walking away ultimately happens because their partner will continue to pursue them or become so frustrated by their lack of engagement that they end up arguing anyway. This common problem continues when the conflict-avoidant partner uses their significant other’s frustration to justify why they didn’t want to talk about the subject in the first place. However, the argument may not have happened simply by addressing the subject. The conflict-avoidant partner has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. He expected the conversation to produce conflict so he tried to avoid it. However, it was his behavior which caused the conflict; not the subject matter. Understanding the difference is important for moving forward.
In other cases, one partner has used evidence from past discussions with their significant other to determine that their feelings, opinions, or desires will not truly be heard. When a partner comes to believe they are wasting their time or energy discussing something with you because a resolution is rarely achieved, there’s work to be done. You may be unaware that your partner feels this way, so you might need to check it out for yourself. As a result of therapy many clients find out for the first time that their partner has lost faith in their ability to listen and help them move stressful conversations forward in a productive way. “We always end up doing it her way, so I’ve stopped giving my opinion” is what I typically hear. “ She acts like she’s listening to my needs and wants, then does exactly what she wanted to do in the first place. I’ve just stopped trying.” It really only takes one major incident where a partner doesn’t feel like their opinion is valued in word and in deed to turn them off to the process of communicating about the tough subjects. If you have experienced this type of behavior from your partner then it’s time to make them aware of the specific interaction(s) that injured you and try to come to an understanding of how to respect each other’s opinions and needs in the relationship.
Understand that when two people disagree, a decision usually still has to be made about how to move forward. Compromise does not always look like both partners getting some of what they want in each case. Sometimes one partner gets what they want and the other doesn’t. When another decision has to be made in the future the other partner may get what they want while the other concedes. Being in a relationship is all about making concessions. If you are in a relationship where it’s difficult for one or both of you to make concessions then you may need additional help with outlining the parameters of compromise.